Aleteia

Are all bad thoughts sinful?

young woman thinking
By Leszek Glasner|Shutterstock
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Every day thousands of thoughts run through our minds. Some are not particularly charitable or righteous, but are they sinful? 

Every time as we recite “I confess to Almighty God …”, we are reminded of four kinds of sin: in thought, word, deed, and omission. In fact, if temptation usually comes to us from the outside, sin always emerges from within our heart and mind, and requires our acquiescence and complicity.

Only intentional thoughts can be sinful

In His conversation with the Pharisees on what is pure and impure, Jesus points out that the things that sully a person are not those that enter into us “but the things that come out of a person’s mouth, come from the heart, these defile him. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:18-19). The Sermon on the Mount also warns us of this (Matt. 5:22 and 28). 

St. Augustine of Hippo indicates that men who abstain from evil deeds but not from evil thoughts cleanse their flesh but not their spirit. He gives a very graphic example of a man who lusts after a woman and doesn’t actually go to bed with her, but does so in his thoughts. St. Jerome also shares this opinion: “It’s not the will to sin that this man lacks, it’s the opportunity”. 

There are two different kinds of thoughts. Most of the time, we’re not talking about actual thoughts in a strictest sense of the word, but of things that go through our minds without us realizing it. These thoughts may lead us to temptation, but temptation is not a sin. St. Augustine emphasizes this: “it is not merely to be tickled by fleshly delight, but to fully consent to lust; so that the forbidden appetite is not restrained, but satisfied if opportunity should be given.” Only conscious thoughts are sinful (or virtuous) — they presuppose active thinking on our part, accepting a thought and developing it. 

Becoming a master of one’s own thoughts

To this we must add that a chaotic train of “thought” is a part of human condition we’ve inherited since the fall of man. It perturbs the clarity, the serenity, and the intelligence of our hearts and minds. This is why we must patiently and decisively take control of our thoughts and desires. Let us make this Scripture verse from Philippians 4:8 our guiding principle: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… think on these things …”

Father Alain Bandelier